Thursday, August 30, 2012

Late Summer 2012

It’s been so hot and dry this summer here in northern Wyoming that we are beginning to wonder if it will ever rain. Fire danger remains high, and no matter how much water we pour on the garden, it still looks thirsty. Landscape and people alike feel wrung out from the heat.

But there are good things, too. Because of the mild spring, blossoms escaped frost and there seemed to be plenty of bees around to pollinate. Now the wild plum bushes are covered with fruit; thick clusters of rosy plums that almost look like grapes, there are so many. There were service berries in July, and I just managed to pick a bushel-full of chokecherries last week to make wine before the raccoons and robins stripped the bushes. If you follow the water-ways this time of year, you can often find huge piles of raccoon scat, consisting almost entirely of chokecherries or plums.

One plant in abundance right now is a pretty yellow composite flower called curlycup gumweed, (Grindelia squarrosa).

The plant can reach three feet in height; the leaves are slightly toothed and spade shaped, and the many sticky flowers are surrounded by pincushion-like bracts.

The plants often grow in poor soil and are blooming everywhere right now in our area.
It doesn’t make a good cut flower to bring indoors and put in a vase, but gumweed has great medicinal properties. The Native Americans used to chew the sticky flowers like gum, and a tea made from those flowers is a useful expectorant and good for bronchitis and chest colds. Gather the flowers now to use in winter teas.

Clip the flowers and dry them in a tray lined with paper towels, out of the sun. Always be sure to dry herbs away from sunlight and heat.

Another use for gumweed I read about recently was as a topical poultice to relieve poison ivy. I’m all for anything that helps with that! Either crush the fresh flowers and apply them directly to the skin, or make a tincture by putting the flowers in witch hazel or grain alcohol. You can let the flowers steep in the liquid for several weeks, and then strain out the plant. Your tincture, kept away from heat and sunlight, will last a long time.
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I also want to mention the humble wild yarrow plant, (Achillea lanulosa), which is found in abundance everywhere right now.

The leaves are fine and fern-like and the flowers are white and flat-topped.

The scent is woodsy and somewhat balsamic.
Like the gumweed flowers, yarrow makes a bitter tonic tea, but is also good for chest colds and helping to bring on a sweat in dry fevers.

Both these flowers are worth gathering and drying now to prepare for cold and flu season.

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In the garden it seems like summer squashes and cucumbers have taken over, while we in northern Wyoming all hope for a late frost so the winter squash and tomatoes can have a fighting chance at ripening. Here are two great recipes that will use up some of that extra produce.

1. TZATZIKI- Greek cucumber dip       from,  Keri Paninos

Peel and slice length-wise 4 cucumbers and take out the seeds. Loosely chop the cukes
Add to 2 cups of Greek yogurt, (whole-milk yogurt is better!)
2 crushed and chopped cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh dill and 1 tablespoon fresh minced mint
Salt and black pepper to taste
Use this terrific dip over stir- fries, on roasts or with pita bread sandwiches

2. ZUCCHINNI FRITTERS-                 from Pricilla Meyer

2 cups coarsely grated zucchini
½ cup flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ cup grated parmesan
Salt and pepper and maybe a pinch of herbs of your choice
2 eggs separated
Mix everything together except the egg whites. Beat the egg whites separately until they form soft peaks and then gently fold them into the batter
Drop by large tablespoons onto a hot skillet greased with olive oil. Cook fritters over medium heat, turning once when golden brown.
This is a delicious thing to do with all that zucchini. Serve with sour cream and salsa

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There is one more garden plant I want to mention.

A wild green called Common Purslane, Portulaca oleracea (also known as Verdolaga, Pigweed, Little Hogweed, or Pusley.
Most people consider this plant a garden pest as its succulent-like oval leaves tend to spread in a mat, making it somewhat invasive.

But purslane is one of the few plants that contain omega-3 (highly unsaturated) fatty acids. That’s the good kind of fat that helps reduce inflammation and protect the body in other ways. The only other plants I know of containing omega-3’s are flax and hemp. When I was down in the jungles of Michoacán, purslane was often thrown into an egg scramble or stir fry. It’s good thrown into a salad, too. Give it a try. You’ll be surprised!

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Friday, June 29, 2012

While riding my bicycle recently I came up behind two young girls, maybe ten - twelve years old, riding tandem on one bike. Skinny, in sleeveless T’s and shorts, already full into summer now that school is out, they were laughing and joking away, all the while whizzing down the highway. As I got closer, I realized that one of the girls had a bird on her shoulder. A baby magpie! I had to stop them and ask about the bird. “My brother found it, and my grand-dad said that if it was still around in the morning I could keep it.”  Once out of the nest, baby magpies are pretty good in size but you can recognize them easily because they haven’t grown out their long tail feathers yet, and their black and white markings are not quite distinct, their fluffy gray under-feathers coming through. This chick clung tenaciously to the girl’s shoulder as if its life depended on it, which it did.

“He sure is pretty,” I said. “What are you feeding him?”

“Actually we think it’s a she, and we’re feeding her worms and bread crumbs.” They replied.

“You could call her Pat,” I said. “That name would work for either a girl or boy.”

“We named her Ringo.” One girl said.

“Oh, yes, that’s a much nicer name!” I replied.

Bird life can be surprising. Once migrating birds arrive and settle in it doesn’t seem to take too long before we begin to see gangly, fluffy babies showing up.

Wild turkeys reside in Wyoming all year long, roosting high in the trees at night to stay safe from predators. But this time of year the mamas nest in the tall grass until their eggs hatch out. I’m always in awe of their bravery, though the nests are really well hidden.

About a month ago, I found a single turkey egg on the lawn one morning. I called around the neighborhood to see who might have a broody hen, and the egg found a home under one of my friend Kari’s big fluffy hens. And then, last week, it hatched: A little wild turkey that the hen would have nothing to do with! So into a cardboard box with a heat lamp it went. Kari got another little turkey from the feed store and the two seem to be doing well. I don’t want to mess with nature too much, but still, that egg… I just couldn’t resist giving it a chance.

June is a month for rhubarb. We have a jungle of it in the garden. If you have some and notice the plant sending out big flower stalks, just pull them out and the plant will produce longer. To harvest, reach way down to the bottom of the stalk and just give it a good yank. Trim off the big leaves, as they are known to be toxic. When you have a nice pile of the stalks, rinse them well, and chop into small pieces. There are many recipes for rhubarb. Here are three of my favorites:


                                            RHUBARB CAKE 

                                       ¾ cup non-fat plain yogurt
                                       4 cups chopped rhubarb
                                       1 ¼ cups packed brown sugar
                                       ½ cup softened butter
                                       2 eggs
                                       2 cups flour, 1/2 whole wheat if you prefer
                                       1 tsp. baking soda
                                       ¼ tsp. salt
                                       1 tb. Vanilla 
                                        ½ cup sugar
                                        2 tb. softened butter & 2 tsp. cinnamon

Mix the rhubarb and yogurt in a small bowl and set aside. In another bowl, cream together brown sugar, butter, eggs& vanilla.  Add flour, soda and salt, then fold in the rhubarb mixture and blend until well mixed. Pour into a well-buttered 9x13 pan.
Mix all topping ingredients with your fingers and sprinkle over the top of the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until done. This cake is sometimes served with a brandy sauce, but is so good all by itself, that I have presented it here solo.

                                                COLD RHUBARB TEA!
                                                4 cups diced rhubarb
                                                4 cups water
                                                Grated rind of one lemon
                                                ¾ to 1 cup sugar

Simmer rhubarb in water until very tender- about 25 minutes. Strain. Stir in sugar and rind while still hot. Cool and serve over ice. This tea is surprisingly good and refreshing. The recipe came from my great cousin Pricilla in New Hampshire, who said she got the recipe from “The Best of Shaker Cooking” cookbook.

                                      RHUBARB- BLUEBERRY CUSTARD PIE
                                      Make a pie crust:
                                      2 cups flour
                                      12 tablespoons chilled butter
                                      4 oz. cream cheese
                                      1 tsp. salt
                                      1/3 to ½ cup cold orange or apple juice.
Toss the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter and cream cheese with a butter knife and pastry cutter until fats are about pea-sized. Sprinkle the juice a little at a time and just toss and squeeze the dough with your hands until it comes together. Divide it in two and wrap in wax paper, flattening it a little. Chill while you make the rest.

                                      4 eggs, ¼ cup milk & 1/3 cup flour
                                      1 ½ cups sugar, 1 tb. vanilla
                                      ½ tsp. cinnamon and a generous tsp. of nutmeg
                                      4 cups rhubarb
                                      1 cup blueberries
Toss everything together except the blueberries. Set aside. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. When your dough is chilled enough to handle, roll out half on a well floured board and place in a pie pan. Trim edges. Roll the other half out and cut into long strips. Now comes the fun part. Pour in the filling, sprinkling the blueberries over the top at the last and weave a top with the strips. Be artful ! Bake 10 minutes at 400, then cover the edges with foil and lower the heat to 350. Bake another 45-55 minutes. This is really good. Even folks who say they don’t like rhubarb, wind up liking this pie!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


The other day I saw an industrious robin working over a lawn, evidently pursuing worms. Just as she was pulling a big fat treat out of the grass a magpie flew down, knocked the robin out of the way, grabbed the worm and flew off. What!! My signature bird, magpie, playing the bully!? Well yes, magpies can prove the opportunist, but they are industrious as well. They build the most incredible nests; houses, really. Big bundles of twigs with a roof and an opening, always facing east, just like any good Hogan. They build them deep into a bush of, say, chokecherry, wild plum or hawthorn, where no respectable predator will likely care to venture. The nests can be plainly seen the first of May, before any of the plants have leafed out, when it is still chilly. But now, with warmer weather, there has been an explosion of leaves and flowers. Day by day, as the bushes unfurled their leaves the magpie nests disappear. And now, like most of the bird nests, they are just plain invisible.

Warm, dry weather has brought spring on early. It’s looking like drought for the summer, but right now, with so many plants in bloom, it looks pretty good around here. The long flower racemes of chokecherry, with their delicate almond scent, are being worked over by the honey bees, the big bumble bees, and the other little pollen gatherers whose names I do not know. It’s a lovely sight to watch the bees, their legs heavy with golden pollen.

One spring herb that is available right now is nettle, often called “stinging nettle”. It can be found along little streams and ditches. It looks a little like a dark green hairy mint, with square stems, but be careful and always wear gloves when picking nettles. The hairs contain formic acid; the same acid found in the sting of bees and ants. Once the plant is cooked or dried, the hairs are rendered harmless. Nettle is truly one of the most extraordinary edible wild plants, and is found growing all over the world. It has been collected for eons by humans for both food and medicine. Nettle is rich in vitamins and minerals, and has one of the highest forms of absorb-able plant iron. It is a great spring tonic, helping build the blood as well as flushing out toxins, like excess uric acid from the joints. It can also help with hay fever symptoms, arthritis and rheumatism.

I tried cooking nettle several different ways this spring. First, I rinsed it clean in my lettuce spinner, laid it out on paper towels, out of the sun, and just dried it for tea. I also tried making tea fresh and have been keeping a jar of it cold in the frig, drinking a little each day. There is so much chlorophyll in nettle that the tea tastes just like spinach tea! Basically, you can use nettle in any recipe that calls for cooked spinach. Just lightly steam the greens and add it according to the recipe. I made Greek omelets filled with steamed nettle, sauteed mushrooms, and feta. I added it to pizza, with sun-dried tomatoes and Greek olives. If nettle grows in your area, pick some now and experiment. Later on in the season the plant gets too tough to eat. In fact, the older tougher stalks have been used to make rope and fabric, dating back to the Bronze Age.

One spring vegetable that can’t be beat is asparagus. We’ve been gathering it now from the garden for several weeks. Hands down the best way to cook asparagus is to grill it. Just drizzle the spears with a little olive oil, add a dash of cayenne and salt and some herbs, say, basil and thyme. Toss it all together and by the time your grill is ready, the asparagus will have marinated enough and be ready too. If you have a grilling basket for vegetables, great, but otherwise, just lay the spears on the grill, perpendicular to the grate so they don’t fall through. Turn a few times, and after maybe ten minutes they should be ready. Even if you char the spears a little they still taste yummy (in fact, some of us prefer it that way).

Happy spring eating!
Courtney Caplan

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Magpie April 2012

March may have come in like a lion, full of ice and snow, but it has gone out like a lamb. A couple of weeks of unseasonably warm and dry weather has pulled the snow off the landscape, exposing beaten down brown grasses, opening up the creeks and tempting the aspen to begin budding out. Here among the ponderosa along the creek, the crows have returned, circling through the trees, cawing up a racket, letting their presence be known. White-tail deer, with their coats shaggy from the winter nest down at night in the piles of pine needles I rake for compost. I call the deer, “my kinetic lawn ornaments and ace gardening shears”. As they move through the yard they nibble almost every plant in sight, saving me the trouble of having to prune or clip.

Out on the prairie, birds are returning in droves. Meadowlarks, redwing black birds and blue birds are back. Canada geese strut the fields in romantic pairings, honking up a storm, and the beautiful calls of the sandhill cranes fill the early mornings and evenings. I call this the noisy time of year! The snowbirds have returned and they lift my winter-weary spirit. Oh, you thought the term “snowbirds” only applied to senior citizens who travel to Arizona and Texas with their travel trailers for the winter?  Ah, but the birds are my neighbors as well, and I am glad to see both bird and human return.
Here in northern Wyoming, April is often when I expect the biggest snow storms. So I haven’t put away my snow shovel just yet. There is still ice along the creek, and only a blush of green at the edge of meadows. Not much is going on in the garden; the big green leaves of rhubarb are just starting to poke through the litter.
One of the earliest herbs you can plant is cilantro. Cilantro is a wonderful detox herb, and is good in lots of soups, salads and more. I find in my garden that as soon as the weather really heats up – mid June around here - the cilantro tends to go to seed. That is okay because cilantro seed is coriander, which is used in lots of Mexican and Indian dishes. Let the seeds dry on the plant, then clip the whole thing and put up side down in a paper bag. You can clean the seeds off the plant later on some rainy day when you have to stay inside. Grind them in your coffee grinder after they are good and dry.

I use a trinity of herbs, coriander, cumin and cayenne in lots of dishes. Here is a great recipe that uses all three, plus the fresh cilantro.

                                  QUINOA, ( pronounced keen-waw )  SALAD

¼ cup olive oil         1 tablespoon chopped garlic            1 teaspoon each of cumin & coriander
3 cups water             1 red bell pepper, finely sliced         ¼  teaspoon cayenne
2 cups quinoa          ½ cup lime juice                                  1 bunch of fresh cilantro chopped
1 bay leaf                  1 teaspoon salt
2 carrots, grated
In a heavy skillet, lightly toast the quinoa in the olive oil on medium heat, stirring often until the grain begins to pop and crackle. Add the water and bay leaf and cover. Simmer on low about 20 minutes until all the water has been absorbed. Transfer to a bowl, cool, and add rest of ingredients. Mix everything together well and chill. Delicious!


Wednesday, March 7, 2012


 A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO A NEIGHBOR CAME BY TO DROP OFF SOME GOAT CHEESE. We trade wine, usually chokecherry or wild rosehip for his incredible cheeses. As he was leaving we noticed a commotion up in a big ponderosa tree. It was a nice sunny day, and the little birds had been active at the feeder. But now the chickadees and nuthatches, and even the downy woodpeckers were raising a fuss high up in the tree over what? We had to look, really look to see a Western Screech Owl trying to catch a nap. He was about as wide as he was tall, maybe 8 inches, all fluffed out, doing his best to ignore the fray. Western Screech Owls are amazing little owls, and I seldom see them, though one winter I did see one down by the creek catch a fish in a shallow pool. He almost got to eat that fish until the crows and magpies came to harass him. What’s a guy to do when he’s picked on by big and little alike?

The owl one is most likely to see here in Story, Wyoming, is the Great Horned Owl. Like the little Screech Owl, they also fish when the creek is shallow from winter freeze-up. And this time of year, when we are all becoming weary of winter, they court as well. In the early evenings one can hear their hoot-hoot-hooting through the woods. First a low hooting, then off somewhere else, a high hoot will answer back. Owls nest early, maybe so they won’t have to compete for nesting sites with other birds of prey, like hawks and eagles.

Please note. A Snowy Owl was spotted at the north end of Lake DeSmet, ten miles from Buffalo, Wyoming.

This time of year when we are months from both the harvest and the sowing of our gardens, I would like to offer a couple of recipes.

1.  A bundle of chokecherry and/or wild plum twigs - if you are getting cabin-fever like the rest of us, grab your pruning shears and go outside. Trim off a handful of sucker-branches from chokecherry or plum bush. If you don’t have any wild around, domestic is fine. Go back inside and whittle off the tender bark and boil it up in a half gallon of water. This alone makes a fine tea for lung congestion, and besides, it’s a pretty color.

2.  Strain the bark and add 2 cups of dried rosehips, 1 cup of dried elderberries, a stick of cinnamon and a thumb-sized peeled piece of ginger. Simmer all that up for about an hour. Strain then….

3.  Add honey to taste. You can add brandy too but it’s not necessary. This syrup will sooth a scratchy throat and keep for a long while in the frig.
 A lot of people grow culinary sage in their herb gardens and then never do a thing with it. I think they feel like it is too strong an herb, but not so! I grow as many varieties as I can because the deer won’t eat it and that’s a miracle around these parts. Here are two things one can do with sage.

Sage is a wonderful herb for thrush or a sore throat and surprisingly pleasant to drink. Just steep some dried leaves in boiling water for a few minutes, and add a little honey. Sip that and your throat will feel better.

 SautĂ© in olive oil some pork chops or chicken breasts over medium heat, turning until browned. Add a big ol’ squashed garlic clove, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and about a tablespoon of dried sage that you have crumbled between your hands to release the aroma. You may add a touch of Marsala or white wine, or not. Cover and cook until done. Quick and easy!

 If you have dried herbs to see you through the winter, be generous with yourself and use them up! They are meant to be used and replaced on a yearly basis for the best cooking results. I remember after my grandmother died we inherited numerous little red and white tins of herbs that sat around for YEARS! Maybe I thought I could keep her memory alive by keeping them around, but they were dust for cooking.

Well, that is what I have to say about herbs for March.
Courtney Caplan
Magpie Potions